When Living Means Leaving


Yesim Ustaoglu’s Araf – Somewhere In Between

Araf, in Turkish, means limbo; the limbo between life and death. Yesim Ustaoglu’s film Araf – Somewhere In Between explores these dimensions of suffering and purgatory through gorgeous shots of the harsh, undeveloped and neglected working class lives of a rural Turkish town.

The story centers on Olgun (Baris Hacihan) and Zehra (Neslihan Atagül) who both work at the same gas station and truck stop. Trapped in the gray senselessness of their lives, stillness encapsulates their scenes, underlining the sense of boredom and the slowness that marks them. Instead, we see them live in dreams. Olgun wants to be on Turkish Deal or No Deal and Zehra wants to go far away and travel.

There’s a palpable violence to the character of Olgun, who is completely resigned to his surroundings and to the emotions of his parents and their loveless marriage. What’s more, he also lacks understanding of Zehra’s burgeoning femininity and, though he is attracted to her, his evident naivety renders him immature and unworthy of her affection. She seeks something greater, a force that will save her.

A truck driver (Özcan Deniz), modest and brooding, enters the life of Zehra. His stoic and respectful disposition mirrors his complete lack of dialogue, a juxtaposition to Olgun’s brutish youth. Shots of him praying on his tasbih (rosary beads) assert his religiosity and temperament. He is older, with hints of gray across his beard, and he is reserved. However, there is a clear explanation for Zehra’s attraction to him: he is characterized completely by his mobility.


Atagül in Araf – Somewhere In Between

Everything in the film brews and eventually erupts like the interspersed scenes of molten lava that capture the crudeness of their world. With beautiful cinematography by Michael Hammon, the desolation of the stretched terrain mirrors the inactivity of a people stuck in time, afraid of real change. The images of lava, lumbering into scenes now and again, remind us of the undercurrent of hellish existence that lingers; the araf.

However, the real hell occurs in a scene during the third act. While most of the film is delicately observed, this scene elicits a truly stomach turning, hands-to-face reaction. With all the elements of a horror film, the scene uncovers a sickening moment that is raw, visceral and quintessentially animal in its narrative and from which the film's tragedy derives. The transition of Zehra from a naive girl, searching for a grand life and love, to a disenchanted young woman who would settle for any semblance of the life she lived before her terror.

The economic and social realities that surround Zehra extinguish the dismal idealism she once enjoyed, crushing her fantasies with the devastation of youth. Though the bloodbath doesn’t sum up the film, it’s a necessary moment to detail the real devastation of womanhood, and what it really means to be "female," allowing us to see that innocence doesn’t last forever.


Christian Petzold's Barbara

In a layered and nuanced performance by the utterly enigmatic Nina Hoss, Christian Petzold creates yet another beautiful insight into Germany’s history and culture in Barbara. Germany’s official candidate for best foreign-film at the Oscars next year, the film explores the complications of a people torn and a country divided.

Set in the 1980s, Barbara (Hoss), is a resourceful pediatric surgeon in East Germany. After applying for a travel visa to the West, she is banished from Berlin, a punishment for political insubordination. She is removed from her prestigious position and sent to a local medical clinic in an isolated Northern German town where she starts working. There she meets a young doctor named André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is instantaneously fascinated by her. Whether it’s due to her beauty or her lack of social propriety with the other doctors, he’s transfixed and drawn to her. Hoss’ Barbara is constantly on guard and trusts no one, not even her new colleagues, rejecting André’s friendship as a result.

Although she is subdued and removed from most things, we do see glimpses of her emotion come into play. Barbara is subject to constant supervision and lengthy, humiliating searches by a Stasi official, Schütz (Rainer Bock). This mistrust permeates the film, compounding Barbara’s anxiety. And when a pregnant young girl, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), arrives at the hospital suffering from meningitis, she latches onto Barbara as a maternal savior. Barbara responds with kindness and complete devotion.


Hoss and Zehrfeld in Barbara

Although Barbara has plans to escape to Poland with her lover Jörg (Mark Waschke), she is moved by André when, in a rare moment of dual repose, he explains to her the story of his own banishment. This, and her connection to Stella, makes her question her decision to flee. What would it be like to stay?

The oppression of the times is elegantly captured by Petzold and cinematographer Hans Fromm. Their depiction of an East German countryside shows a world of muted colors, warm light and open space, which acts as a nice visual counterpoint to the moral climate and the undercurrent of the Cold War.

Both in Araf and Barbara, the directors are careful not to create a cliched portrait of oppression where love is the pure and liberating force. The main characters struggle with moral probity under the whims of intolerable societies that do nothing to serve their needs. But in the end, both women remain loyal, in whatever way they can, to their respective countries and cultures. These films are films of consequence, depictions of self-sacrifice and the complicated issues surrounding women and society, as well as women in society. Zehra and Barbara are desperate, each possessing a need to escape; yet they transcend this state of being by recognizing that what is right is not always rational.

Araf – Somewhere In Between has its final screening Saturday at 12:00pm in the 50th New York Film Festival.

Fariha Roisin is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow her on Twitter at: @mofafafafa.

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